Joe Strange - Carling Cup final shakes 'Mickey Mouse' tag

25 February 2011 04:02
Often home to reserve team players and first-team stars out-of-favour with their manager, the League Cup, particularly among the Premier League's elite, continues to lay claim to the rather unfortunate reputation of being, well, a bit rubbish.

The Cup's status has been on the decline over the last decade, with interest only briefly ignited during the latter stages of the competition or when bitter rivals are paired together. Even the usual furore surrounding a giant-killing is significantly played down if it occurs in the Carling Cup, with the bigger club's weakened line-up often cited as a contributing factor.

Title-chasers like Manchester United and Chelsea invariably rest their key players, instead choosing to give those normally consigned to the youth and reserve sides a taste of first-team action. Clubs aiming for a European spot and those battling to avoid the drop often act in a similar manner, prioritising Premier League points over the glory of lifting a domestic cup.

As disheartening as it might be, this trend looks unlikely to change anytime soon. The financial rewards for reaching the Champions League or avoiding the drop down to the Championship far outweigh those of a trip to Wembley. Football is a business and the lack of interest in the Carling Cup does nothing to disprove that fact.

But while the competition's reputation might be continuing its gradual slide into obscurity, Sunday's clash between Arsenal and Birmingham City should, for the first time in years, give neutrals a genuinely significant final to get excited about.

Without meaning to cause offence, Manchester United's recent dominance in the competition has been nothing short of mind-numbing. Fergie doesn't really care about winning it and nor do the fans, they've got far bigger fish to fry.

Tottenham have also had a brief love-affair with the oddly-shaped trophy over the past few seasons, winning it in 2008 before losing out in the final the following year. Juande Ramos' victory was a welcome bright-point in an otherwise dire season, while the penalty defeat to United in 2009 was played against the backdrop of an ongoing fight against relegation.

Although Sunday's participants Birmingham are also caught at the wrong end of the Premier League table, manager Alex McLeish has made a concerted effort to reach the final and give the St Andrew's faithful something to smile about. A memorable quarter-final win over fierce rivals Aston Villa was swiftly followed by a superb semi-final comeback against West Ham, taking them to their first major final for ten years.

In two days they'll come up against Arsenal, a club often criticised for fielding under-strength teams in the competition. Arsene Wenger uses the competition  as a platform for his talented youngsters to strut their stuff and the Frenchman chose to do the same in the early rounds this season. But a change in his approach was noticeable as the Gunners reached the latter stages- youth and energy swiftly replaced with experience and quality. Wenger is determined to end Arsenal's trophy drought.

The two finalists have also developed their own unique rivalry recently, with many Arsenal fans proclaiming their dislike for their midlands opponents. It all stems from Martin Taylor's leg-breaking challenge on Eduardo during the 2007-08, a tackle which many believe ultimately ended the Croatian's promising career at the Emirates.

As if to add insult to injury (quite literally), the Blues scored a last-minute penalty on the same day to rescue a 2-2 draw and damage Arsenal's title hopes. And, in a near identical turn of events, McLeish's men did the same last season to effectively end the Reds' dreams of lifting another Premier League crown.

These incidents, plus Wenger's much-publicised wait for silverware and McLeish's desire to reward Birmingham with what would be only the second major trophy in their history, all adds up to a must-watch League Cup final on Sunday. I can't wait.

Follow me on Twitter @joe_strange

Source: DSG

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